Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Cypress Tree: Kamin Mohammadi (Iran)

Kamin Mohammadi was nine years old when her family fled Iran during the 1979 Revolution. Bewildered by the seismic changes in her homeland, she turned her back on the past and spent her teenage years trying to fit in with British attitudes to family, food and freedom. She was twenty-seven before she returned to Iran, drawn inexorably back by memories of her grandmother's house in Abadan, with its traditional inner courtyard, its noisy gatherings and its very walls
steeped in history.

The Cypress Tree is Kamin's account of her journey home, to rediscover her Iranian self and to discover for the first time the story of her family: a sprawling clan that sprang from humble roots to bloom during the affluent, Biba-clad 1960s, only to be shaken by the horrors of the Iran-Iraq War and the heartbreak of exile, and toughened by the struggle for democracy that continues today.

This moving and passionate memoir is a love letter both to Kamin's extraordinary family and to
Iran itself, an ancient country which has survived so much modern tumult but where joy and resilience will always triumph over despair.

This was without a doubt, one of the finest written books that I have read this year, a deeply moving and personal tale which is part family history, part history of the nation of Iran. I say without hesitation that it is a must read for all those wishing to know more about the more recent jistory that has shaped Irans turbulent past, and to gain an insight into the Iranian soul.

Iran is a country that despite the media reports, I knew little about (in modern times at least), my thoughts being confined to media images of women clad from head to foot in black and men chanting in religious fervour in order to keep those women subjugated and hidden. I am not sure why I felt this or where those thoughts came from, as the few Iranian men whom I have known and worked with have not been like this at all.

One of the highlights of this year was for me watching the Sitting Mens Volleyball final during the Paralympic Games, in which Iran played. The women there were certainly not clad in black and appeared to be enjoying themselves as much as the men, but I guess that when you take Iranians out of Iran, they are that nuch freer to express themselves in all ways, and this book only served to demonstrate that. It is a cliche, but you can take the woman out of Iran, but you can never take Iran out of the woman and so it is that the author, despite her Western upbringing, having left her Iranian roots behind at the age of nine, has this constant longing to return home.

What struck me most of all was not so much the factual history, but the way in which this affected and continues to affect those involved. The women paid a high price, that much is true, but so did their men, being forced to flee quite literally for their lives, their personal identity and sense of self being so closely tied to the nation that they were born into and called home. The way in which this revolution happened was almost insideous, with people seeming not to know what the consequences would be - one moment they were protesting about the corruption of their leaders and politicians (sounds familiar), and the next they were praying from the rooftops and in the womens cases, their courtyards, being forbidden to leave their own homes in clothes that were deemed unacceptable. The wheel though turns, and one day those same men and women shall rise up and demand a reversal back to more free and liberal times. 

As another reviewer so eloquently stated, Iran is within this book, almost a character in its own right, with all her contrasts and foibles - harsh and demanding on the one hand, but beautiful and expressive as well. This book is a book of contrasts, filled with colour and beauty, but also with pain and despair, which will  no doubt be hugely cathartic to Iranian refugees. It paints a picture too of a nation of contrasts, where nine year old boys are brainwashed into acting as mine sweepers in order to reach paradise, but where educated women hold down responsible jobs and live independently in their own homes. This book paints a vivid picture of an evoctive land where the sounds and smells come to life, the landscape, culture and food, but most of all the bond that exists between ordinary families and the lengths they will go to to protect each other and maintain those bonds.

As the author states at the end of the book Iran is like the cypress tree that has grown for thousands of years and weathered all the storms. Like the tree, Iranians have learned to bend to the prevailing winds, but are not broken. One day they will rise up and claim what it rightfully theirs, the freedom and independence that we in the West take so much for granted.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Somewhere Home: Nada Awar Jarrar (Lebanon).

This remarkable novel tells the story of three women, each of them far from where they came, all of whom are still searching for somewhere that can be called home.

This book was published by Heinemann in 2004. It has been out of print since 2005.

Maysa returns to the house that was her grandparents' home , in a village high on the slopes of Mount Lebanon.

Aida, long a traveller far from the land of her birth, returns in search for the man, a refugee, who was so much more of a father to her than her own

Salwa, who was taken from her homeland when a young bride and delivered to another family, another country, returns to find the person she once was.

This was a beautifully written, almost lyrical book about the lives of three Lebanese women and their extended families, all of whom are coming to terms in some way, with the need to find somewhere that they can call home - or indeed, to return to that place that once was home.  
The three women are all different in some ways, yet there are all the same, for they all feel to varying degrees, the same emotions - the reasons behind these emotions may differ, but the need is the same, the longing to return to a place of safety and security that represents to them their roots and their identity.
When we meet the first of three women, Maysa, she is a young woman who has returned to her ancestral home in the foothills of Mount Lebanon in order to give birth. Her husband meanwhile, is living in the city of Beirut. Maysa chooses to remain in the house after she gives birth, and after her daughter leaves to join her father in the city, but eventually the child reunites them, and Maysa finds that home is not a place, but rather where the heart is - with her family.
The second woman in Aida, who returns to Beirut as an older woman in order to reclaim memories of her own childhood, in particular of the Palestinian refugee who despite his own family, was more of a father to her than her real one, who fled many years before. The most moving for me at least, of the three characters was Salwa, an elderly woman who looks back on her life from her hospital bed, in  Australia (so she is indeed far from home) surrounded by children and grandchildren, listening to her stories and looking after her needs.
The book as with others from this part of the world, explores many themes, including war, emigration, early marriage and not least of all, the role that women play in these societies. One is left feeling that despite their submissiveness, these women are in fact strong characters, whose lives and identities are closely entwined with their families, in whom they play a pivotal role.
The book left me with an overriding sense of sadness, with tinged with a sense of hope - hope that things for these women and for those real Lebanese women (and of course the men with whom they share their lives) will do and has got better, as they rebuild their once beautiful city and their own disparate lives. This is a book that I would strongly recommend.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

A Carpet Ride to Khiva: Christopher Aslan Alexander (Uzebekistan)

This is a unique, beautiful and moving account of seven years living in the remote Uzbek desert. "The Silk Road" conjures images of the exotic and the unknown. Most travellers simply pass along it. Brit Chris Alexander chose to live there. Ostensibly writing a guidebook, Alexander found life at the heart of the glittering madrassahs, mosques and minarets of the walled city of Khiva - a remote desert oasis in Uzbekistan - immensely alluring, and stayed. Immersing himself in the language and rich cultural traditions Alexander discovers a world torn between Marx and Mohammed - a place where veils and vodka, pork and polygamy freely mingle - against a backdrop of forgotten carpet designs, crumbling but magnificent Islamic architecture and scenes drawn straight from "The Arabian Nights". Accompanied by a large green parrot, a ginger cat and his adoptive Uzbek family, Alexander recounts his efforts to rediscover the lost art of traditional weaving and dyeing, and the process establishing a self-sufficient carpet workshop, employing local women and disabled people to train as apprentices. "A Carpet Ride to Khiva" sees Alexander being stripped naked at a former Soviet youth camp, crawling through silkworm droppings in an attempt to record their life-cycle, holed up in the British Museum discovering carpet designs dormant for half a millennia, tackling a carpet-thieving mayor, distinguishing natural dyes from sacks of opium in Northern Afghanistan, bluffing his way through an impromptu version of "My Heart Will Go On" for national Uzbek TV and seeking sanctuary as an anti-Western riot consumed the Kabul carpet bazaar. It is an unforgettable true travel story of a journey to the heart of the unknown and the unexpected friendship one man found there.
Author Christopher Aslan Alexander has, as the blurb says, led a somewhat unusual life. Born in Turkey but brought up in Beirut he went to work (and of course live) in Uzbekistan after university, initially to help write guide books, but ended up staying for seven years and starting a school for carpet weaving.
Part travelogue, part biography this is a fascinating tale of what life is like in this part of the world, where Soviet politics and principals meet in sharp contrast with the Central Asian and Muslim lifestyle with all of its ancient traditions, but somehow seems to gel. The way that Alexander writes (and he did write this himself) really brings the characters and this unique way of life to life, to the extent that you feel as if they are right there in your own living room with you.  
It is not of course all light, as there is also a darker side to this part of the world, which Alexander does not shy away from - the corruption and bribery, which is rife in this part of the world, and which eventually leads to his expulsion, the way that young brides and societies misfits (the vulnerable and disabled) are often treated, organ trafficking, and the sexual mores of young men, who short of female partners turn their attention to their donkeys instead. Reading this book then taught me a lot about all of these issues and has no doubt opened the eyes of many who like me, tend to think of the former Soviet states as white Russian when they are clearly most of them not, for the Soviet Union spanned for miles from the Baltic states in the west to Siberia in the east, with much in between. The book also of course provides insights into carpet weaving and its history, but for me it is the stories of Alexander himself and his fellow Uzbeks that really bring the tale to life.

Friday, 17 August 2012

The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disppeared: Jonas Jonasson (Sweden)

It all starts on the one-hundredth birthday of Allan Karlsson. Sitting quietly in his room in an old people’s home, he is waiting for the party he-never-wanted-anyway to begin. The Mayor is going to be there. The press is going to be there. But, as it turns out, Allan is not… Slowly but surely Allan climbs out of his bedroom window, into the flowerbed (in his slippers) and makes his getaway. And so begins his picaresque and unlikely journey involving criminals, several murders, a suitcase full of cash, and incompetent police. As his escapades unfold, we learn something of Allan’s earlier life in which – remarkably – he helped to make the atom bomb, became friends with American presidents, Russian tyrants, and Chinese leaders, and was a participant behind the scenes in many key events of the twentieth century. Already a huge bestseller across Europe, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared is a fun and feel-good book for all ages.
This novel, which is a cross between Forest Gump and Australian novel Steve Toltz' A Fraction of the Whole, is the funniest book I have read well, since A Fraction of the Whole. Written by Swedish born writer Jonas Jonasson and translated from its original language, it has since become an international best seller, and justifiably so.
The story begins as the blurb says, with the 100th birthday of Allan Karlsson, a resident in an old people's home. Sitting quietly in his room, waiting for his 100th birthday celebrations to begin, he decides that he wants none of it, and so climbs out of the window into the flower beds, and so begins his adventure, or does it, for it transpires that Allan has been having adventures all of his life.
Interwoven into the tale of Allan's escape is the story of his life, and this is no ordinary life, for during his travels, Allan has helped both the Soviets and Americans to build atom bombs, worked for both the KGB and CIA, saved the wife of Chairman Mao and blown up the town of Vladivostok in an attempt to escape from a Siberian Gulug - so that he can escape into North Korea and find some vodka.
The imagination and humour of Jonasson know no bounds, as we are introduced to the 100 year old Allan's four accomplices and partners in crime - a petty thief, a hot dog salesman, a gangland boss, and a red haired beauty (not forgetting her adopted elephant Sonya). The four misfits, who meet under unusual circumstamces, together go on the run, following Allan's theft (or borrowing whichever way you look at it) of a suitcase which happens to contain 50 million Swedish Crowns, the proceeds of a drugs heist.
This is an absorbing. laugh out loud tale of hilarious proportions, some of which I can well imagine, are very close to the truth - closer perhaps than those in authority would like us to believe - a total exercise in urine extraction, made all the better by the fact that it is so outrageously believable.
This is quite simply the funniest book I have read in a long while, and one that I would recommend - to everyone !

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Boy Racer: Mark Cavendish (Isle of Man)

Boy Racer steps behind the scenes of the Tour de France. It unmasks the exotic, contradictory, hysterical and brutal world of professional cycling from the compellingly candid viewpoint of someone right in the thick of it. Written off as ‘fat’ and ‘useless’ in his youth, Mark Cavendish is now cycling's brightest star.  His extraordinary quadruple stage-win at last year’s Tour proved him Britain’s best ever cyclist. Some have called him cocky, but to anyone who doesn’t like his style, Mark will simply shrug his shoulders and reply, ‘I know I’m good. There’s no point lying about it. ’Peers say that they have never seen anyone with Cavendish’s hunger for success and while this fearlessness – both in the saddle and on the record – has at times led to controversy, it has also earned him the respect of ever more fans. In Boy Racer we follow him through through the mayhem of the Tour de France in a page-turning journey of pure exhilaration.

Until the route for the recent London 2012 Olympic Road Cycling Races was announced, I had little or no interest in the world of professional cycling. When it was announced to the world's media that the quiet Surrey village of Box Hill, where I live would form a large (in fact pivotal) part of the route, all that changed, it had to in order for me to report back to the rest of the village through my role (as it was then) as Editor of the village newsletter, Box Hill News. Watching the London Surrey Cycle Classic (otherwise known as the Test Race) provided a small taste of the excitement that was to come, when the world's top athletes in this exciting sport sped quite literally past the doorstep. Nothing could have prepared me for the exhileration of the Olympics themselves, two days that I shall never forget.

You would never guess that this book was ghost written (by cycling journalist Daniel Frieb), and he has done an expert job, as it is written so expertly in Cav's own style. The man himself has come across occasionally as arrogant, sometimes as over confident, and often as downright rude, but here to attemps to put his side of the story, portraying himself as a man who very much knows his own mind, strengths and weaknesses and is not afraid to challenge the status quo. I think we need a few more Cav's in this world, for it strikes me that this is a brutally honest young man.

From his childhood on the Isle of Man, to his relationship with ex fiancee, to his cycling exploits, trials and triumphs, it is all here in stark and brutal honesty, with no holds barred. This is a book that not only holds great human interest, helping me to understand what makes this man tick, but which also helped me to understand more about the cycling world, the importance of team work and  how the riders help each other. Cav went up enormously in my estimation when towards the end of book, he detailed the reasons why he turned down a 100 percent pay rise to stay with his (then) current team, but he knows that it is his team makes who are as responsble for his success as he is himself - they are the ones who helped and supported him along the way, and this is in the end far more important than any amount of wealth.

He comes across then, despite his media image, as a level headed young man who understands what really matters, and knows where his loyalties lie, qualities which are all too lacking in other high profile sports I can think of. I for one am eagerly anticipating the next installment of this remarkable athlete's meteoric success, which will go straight to my shopping basket the moment it is released.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

The Appointment: Herta Muller (Romania)

‘I’ve been summoned, Thursday, ten sharp.’ So begins one day in the life of a young clothing-factory worker during Ceausescu’s totalitarian regime. She has been questioned before, but this time she knows it will be worse. Her crime? Sewing notes into the linings of men’s suits bound for Italy. ‘Marry me’, the notes say, with her name and address. Anything to get out of the country.As she rides the tram to her interrogation, her thoughts stray to her friend Lilli, shot while trying to flee to Hungary; to her grandparents, deported after her first husband informed on them; to Major Albu, her interrogator, who begins each session with a wet kiss on her fingers; and to Paul, her lover and the one person she can trust. In her distraction, she misses her stop and finds herself on an unfamiliar street.And what she discovers there suddenly puts her fear of the appointment into chilling perspective. Bone-spare and intense, The Appointment is a pitiless rendering of the terrors of a crushing regime.

Romania suffered perhaps more than any other Eastern European country under the brutal repression on the Ceaucescu regime. Several Romanians work at the nursing home with me, and they have hinted at the things that they saw and experienced during this time, so I suppose I was hoping that reading this book may help me to understand, if one ever really can.

Author Herta Muller was born in Romania in 1953. She lost her job as a teacher and suffered repeated threats following her refusal to cooperate with Ceausescu's Secret Police. One of the lucky ones, she eventually managed to emigrate in 1987 and now lives in Berlin.

This is for me a difficult book to review, as I found it difficult to understand. It seemed to flit between different scenes, as the narrators mind flitted around her own thoughts and experiences. In many ways it can be seen as the narrators life story, at least of her adulthood, as it contains so many different underlying threads. The main thread is however fear, fear or others and what they may say to incriminate you if you do anything deemed to be out of the norm. This may seem a small and insignificant fear to us, but under the notorious Ceeausescu regime, it carried with it the real fear ot interrogation and death. That then is the narrators fear as the story unfolds.

As the blurb suggests, she has been summoned to appear before her inquisitors, the notorious Secret Police. This is not her first interrogation, and is not likely to be the last. As she sits on the tram en route to her appointment, her thoughts begin to wander to what brought her to this point and everything that has happened in her life up until now. The one person that she can rely on is her husband Paul, but this too turns out to be a sham, as when she misses her stop, she sees something that sheds light on tne nature of her relationship and brings her fear into sharp focus witn an almost chilling perspective.   

Fatal Tango: Wolfram Fleischhauer (Germany/Argentina)

Giulietta Battin has devoted herself to ballet, earning a coveted spot as a dancer with the Staatsoper Berlin. But when she decides to explore a new style of music—the tango—life as she knows it changes forever. Soon after beginning her musical adventure, she meets Argentinean tango dancer Damián Alsina. They begin a torrid affair…which quickly turns into a nightmare. Damián suddenly sabotages his own performance with a bizarre, improvised choreography. His passionate creativity excites Giulietta, until Damián’s strange behavior culminates in a shocking act: he kidnaps and tortures her jealous father. Horrified, she demands answers, but Damián has fled to Buenos Aires and her father, his victim, is being suspiciously unforthcoming. So Giulietta follows her lover to South America, where her journey into the world of tango confronts her with the unspeakable horrors of the country’s brutal past. But denial will never silence art, and as Giulietta learns to decipher the true significance of Damián’s dance style, she finds the key to the mystery of her lover´s past and the terrifying truth that connects it with her own.

I bought this book again as Kindle deal of the day thinking that it sounded interesting. Although it took a while to get going, I was not disappointed.

The story centres on young ballerina Giulietta (a name that I have to confess sounds more Italian than German) and her lover, Argentinian tango dancer, Damian. Soon after meeting they begin a torrid and passionate affair which comes to an abrupt halt when Damian kidnaps and tortures her father for no apparent reason, fleeing the country soon afterwards. In an effort to understand, Giulietta follows him to his homeland and so begins her quest to uncover the truth. Interwoven into this fascinating thriller are themes of incest and family secrets, as well as dark secrets harboured by secretive Governments and corrupt officials both past and present that wish to cover their own tracks and hide the truth.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Last Train to Lisbon - Pascal Mercier (Portugal)

This is the phenomenal international bestseller, now in paperback. 'A treat for the mind. One of the best books I have read in a long time' - Isabel Allende.Raimund Gregorius is a mild-mannered, middle-aged professor of ancient languages. One morning, as he is teaching, he is seized by a restlessness that drives him to abandon his classroom then and there - shocking his students, and surprising even himself. His unusual impulsiveness is driven by two chance encounters - with a mysterious Portuguese woman in a red coat; and with a book he finds hidden in a dusty corner of a second-hand bookshop, the journal of an enigmatic Portuguese aristocrat, Amadeu de Prado.With the book as his talisman, Raimund boards the night train to Lisbon on a journey to find out more about Prado, whose words haunt and compel him. Gradually, a picture of an extraordinary man emerges: a difficult, brilliant, charismatic figure, a doctor and a poet, and a rebel against Salazar's dictatorship. And as Prado's story comes to light so, too, Gregorius himself begins his life anew. Hurtling through the dark, "Night Train to Lisbon" is a rich tale, wonderfully told, propelled by the mystery at its heart.

Author Pascal Mercier is a Swiss born (although currently living in Berlin) author with a degree in philosophy. This is his third novel, the first of which has been translated into English.

This was sadly for me, one of those books that promised a lot but seemed to deliver very little. Maybe it was the lack of plot, or issues with the translation (there were several typos that I found and words that had been repeated), but I found this book incredibly hard to get into, and it was a real struggle to complete.

This is a shame, as there is much philosophy within its pages, as one would expect from an author with this pedigree, but there seemed very little substance to the story. It is essentially the tale of a language scholar who nearing retirement, starts to question his life. One day on his way to the university where he works, he comes across a Portuguese woman reading a letter, whom he believes is about to jump off a bridge. She doesn't, but she is obviously agitated, and so he helps her and takes her back to the university. There is something about this woman that sets our hero Gregorius, on a quest to find out more about the womans homeland, and so he wanders into a bookshop and finds an old  manuscript written in her mother tongue by a Portuguese Doctor and philosopher that desptite having no knowledge of the language, he starts to translate. This ultimately leads him to take the night train to Lisbon, hence the title of the book.

Once there, he sets off to discover as much as he can about the man behind this book - his past and his motivations, and along the way, makes a few discoveries about himself, although it is never made clear exactly what these are.

For me this book was really more a collection of quotes from the Portuguese philosopher than about the narrator himself, and the story seemed to lack any real oomph or substance. Maybe it one of those books that you need to read more than once in order to 'get it' but I doubt if I would, as it was such a laborious read the first time around.

I am sure it would appeal to some, and the author is undoubtedly one of life's thinkers, but unfortunately this book was not for me.   

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Partitions: Amit Majmundar (Pakistan)

As India is rent overnight into two nations, sectarian violence explodes on both sides of the new border, with tidal waves of refugees fleeing the blood and chaos. Fighting to board the last train to Delhi, Shankar and Keshav, six-year-old Hindu twins, lose sight of their mother and plunge into the whirling human mass to find her. A young Sikh woman, Simran Kaur, flees her father, who would rather poison his daughter than see her defiled. And Ibrahim Masud, an elderly Muslim doctor driven from the town of his birth, limps towards the new Muslim state of Pakistan. As the displaced face a variety of horrors, this unlikely quartet come together, defying every rule of self-preservation to forge a future of hope. A luminous story of families and nations broken and formed, Partitions introduces an extraordinary novelist who writes with the power and lyricism of poetry.

Author Amit Majmudar is the winner of the 2011 Donald Justice Poetry Prize. His first poetry collection, 0, 0: Poems, was published in 2009, and a novella, Azazel, was serialized in The Kenyon Review. Partitions is his first full-length novel. He lives in the United States with his wife and twin sons.

I came across this book, as with many others, as the Kindle Book of the Day and eager as always for a bargain, snapped it up, as it sounded right up my street. I wasn't wrong.

This is an interesting tale of the partitioning of what was once part of India into the state of Pakistan and what happened to four, or maybe five, of her former inhabitants as they attempt to start a new life. Two of these are six year old Hindu twins, who as the blurb says, lose sight of their mother as the three of them fight to board the last train to Delhi. It is not until almost the end of the book, which is narrated by the boys dead father, that we discover what happened to their mother, that she was pulled from the moving train by her former lover, hoping to also start anew now that she was a widow. She does exactly that, but not in the way that her former lover would have hoped, for she makes her own attempt (and succeeds) in joining her former husband. That part of the story though, I will leave you to read for yourselves.

The other two characters are a teenage Sikh girl, whose father would rather poison her than see her defiled, only she cannot bring herself to drink that poison and escapes. Fleeing from her home and everything that she knows, she is picked up by those who would seek to abuse her by selling into her effective slavery or prostitution. However, she manages to escape, and fleeing across some sugar cane fields, stumbles into the arms of Muslim Doctor Masud, who also comes across the smallest of the two twins, who suffering from a heart condition has collapsed due to the strain, while his stronger twin goes to seek help. The four eventually board a bus to Sikh capital Amritsar, posing as one big happy family. 

This was and is a relatively short read given the subject matter, that took me around six days to complete (slowly at first). But as the story speeded up, so did my reading, until I read the final third in just one day. I know little of the formation of Pakistan and the events that led up to it, but the author paints a vivid picture of the aftermath, and in particular the effect that it had on the female population, who found themselves vulnerable and open to exploitation.

The author plays with the four lead characters, like a dance in slow motion, moving them towards each other and then further away before bringing them together almost at the end. The ghost of the twins father is ever watchful, guiding them on their journey without (for the most part) attempting to interfere, but observing gently from a distance. This for me at least, is part of what makes this such a memorable read, for it the supporting cast who in many ways take centre stage, just as in life. I also liked the way that he brought these four characters, each from a different religion together.

Others have described this as a harrowing read, although to be honest, I have read worse. It is though as always, the message behind the words that counts, and for me that message was about unity, for in the end we are all the same, regardless of belief and it is the recognition of this that leads to the unity and ultimate acceptance, that we all crave.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Ali and Ramazan - Perihan Magden (Turkey)

Based on a true story, this novel follows Ali and Ramazan, two boys from very different backgrounds who land in the same Istanbul orphanage. They quickly see eye to eye and fall into a loving relationship as children, bringing light to one another and to the other orphans in their dreary adopted home. Ramazan is a charmer, the school master's unfortunate favorite, the clown among the boys, and the only one with access to the world outside the orphanage's walls. He takes naïve, sweet, and quietly intelligent Ali under his wing, and together they blossom in a world all their own. However, at age 18 they are released into the streets of Istanbul to find their own way without the support of the state. Faced with an unaccepting world in which they have no one but each other, Ali and Ramazan each make choices that cannot be reversed, with tragic consequences.

I came across this book while trawling the £2.99 and under section on Amazon, and thinking that it sounded an interesting read, decided to download a copy.

When I read the reviews and saw that it was classified as gay and lesbian I wondered whether I had made the right choice, but as I started to read, I found that the fact that the characters are two gay men is really of secondary importance, for this is a book about relationships in general rather than just sex. The fact that the two lead characters are gay is important, yet not important and I found myself wondering whether I would have read this differently had they not been of this persuasion. In the end it not does not matter, for the sexual aspect of their relationship is not the most central part of the book, it is more about the consequences of their love, and how their time in the orphanage affects them both.

When we meet the two boys, Ali and Ramazan, Ramazan who was abandoned as baby outside a mosque is "top dog" at the orphanage, while Ali is newly arrived, having witnessed the murder of his father at his mothers hands, and her own consequent suicide. An immediate bond forms between the two boys, which as they become older, turns to love. Ali has been abused by the Director of the orphanage for years, and as he becomes older, turns to male prostitution in order to earn money, flaunting his love and sexual relationship with Ali in front of the Director in order to make him jealous.

After their discharge from the orphanage and subsequent national service, they eventually move in together. However, years of life at the orphanage have left them totally unprepared for normal life, and they fall into a desperate cycle of co-dependency and abuse - in Ramazan's case continued prostitution, and in Ali's case substance abuse in order to blot out the pain that Ramazan's prostitution causes him to feel.

Almost too late, Ramazan realises how he feels about Ali and how he has mistreated him, having spent the night with a particuarly demanding client whose promise of riches turns out to be false. The inevitable happens - Ramazan snaps and stabs the man through the heart. In his rush to escape he falls from a sixth floor balcony and plunges to his death. When Ali hears of this he hangs himself at the site of a new orphanage, and so the book ends.     

The book is harrowing in places, and and despite their crimes, one is left in no doubt that the real crime is the one which was perpetrated against both of them, i.e. the way in which they were treated and ostracised by Turkish society. The damage, although perpetuated by themselves, was not really of their making, as the abuse they suffered while at the orphanage was what led them down this path in the first place. This then is more of an indictment of the Turkish orphanage system than anything else.

Author Perihan Magden was born in Istanbul and has written several novels in addition to her regular column in Turkish daily, Radikal. She is an honorary member of British PEN and winner of the Grand Award for Freedom of Speech by the Turkish Publishers Association.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Running the Rift: Naomi Benaron (Rwanda)

Jean Patrick dreams of running in the Olympics one day, and with gruelling training he soon beats a world qualifying time. But his chances of success are threatened by the ethnic tensions erupting all around him. When Hutu violence against Tutsis finally crescendos and his homeland Rwanda is wracked by unforgivable atrocities, Jean Patrick, a Tutsi, has no choice but to run for his life abandoning fatherland, family, and the woman he loves. Finding them again will be the race of his life. Following a decade in Rwanda s history through the eyes of one boy, Running the Rift is a wrenching tale of a people s collective trauma, of lives lost, and loves salvaged.

I bought this book as the Kindle Book of the Day, despite its American authorship, having been drawn by its Olympic theme, given that London and indeed the village where I live in Surrey, will later this year play host to the 2012 Games. I was intrigued by the promise of a story of the Rwandan genocide mixed with the hopes and dreams of an Olympic athlete.

Initially I found it quite heavy going and for a moment even considered giving up, but I stayed with it, and in the end was glad that I did, for the more I read, the better the story got. Sure there are stereoptypes - the Americans for example who in some ways save Jean Patrick's life, but this is nevertheless a very believable tale of what happened during the darkest hour in Rwandan history. This book is not however a tale about the genocide, but very much one about an individual, in this case Jean Patrick. 

When we first meet him he is ten years old, a young Tutsi with a gift for running, and hopes of being the first Rwandan to run in the Olympics. His parents, who are simple folk but not uneduated, try to protect their family from the racial tensions and undercurrents that they know are bubbling ever present beneath the surface. Eventually however, these become impossible to ignor, when almost daily acts of violence and open discrimination begin to have an effect on the family's lives.

As Jean Patrick's Olympic dreams begin to reach fruition, he finds himself manipulated by the Hutu led government, who use him a Tutsi, as an example to enhance their own somewhat flagging human rights profile. Because he wants to survive, and because he wants to see the best in people, he ignors the warnings of friends and colleagues, willing to sacrifice his own instincts in order to represent his country.

Into the mix comes Bea, the beautiful and beguiling love interest, a student journalist whose father, a journalist before her, has hidden enemies, and whose mother bears a secret - the fact that she too is Tutsi. As Jean Patrick and Bea's relationship develops, so the war escalates, until both are forced to choose - family or freedom. Bea chooses the former, and Jean Patrick the latter, as he literally runs for his life.

The injuries that he sustains put to an end to his Olympic dreams,. but he has his life, and ultimately he has Bea too, for against the odds after four years in the United States, he learns that she is alive after all, and that she has a son.

I had read books before of this nature - including one set in neighbouring Burundi, so was and am no stranger to what took place, but somehow for me, this felt less real. Maybe it was because it is a novel, where the other books that I have read were first hand accounts written by true survivors. That said, one could imagine that a tale like this could be real, and I am sure that there are and have been many athletes who have been forced to abandon their dreams because of war.

This book may be about Jean Patrick and what happened to him, but it is also the story of countless other Rwandans, gifted athletes and otherwise, for it a story about family, friendships and so much more. It is also a tale of how neighbours and friends can turn on each other for the smallest, often imagined difference, about the mob mentality and about what happens when we stop understanding that all of humanity is one. 

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Purge - Sofi Oksanen (Estonia)

Deep in an Estonian forest, two women, one young, one old, are hiding. Zara is a prostitute and a murderer, on the run from brutal captors – men who know how to punish a woman. Aliide offers refuge but not safety: she has her own criminal secrets – traitorous crimes of passion and revenge committed long ago, during the country’s brutal Soviet years. Both women have survived lives of abuse. But this time their survival depends on revealing the one thing history has taught them to keep safely hidden: the truth. A haunting, intimate and gripping story of suspicion, betrayal and retribution against a backdrop of Soviet oppression and European war.

Sofi Oksanen although born in Finland, is of Estonian extraction through her mother, who emigrated to Finland from the former Soviet republic in 1970. She is the author of three highly acclaimed works, this being the third and most recent.

This novel, which is set of course in Estonia covers the period from the late 1940's through to the early 1990's, shortly after the country regained independence.    

When we first meet the main character, Aliide Truu, she is living a somewhat solitary life in an Estonian village set deep in the forest. One morning after waging war against a fly, she spots something strange outside her window - unsure as to what it is, she investigates only to find that it a young woman in a somewhat dilapidated state, brusied and battered with torn clothes. Aliide's instincts tell her that she should leave the girl where she is, but because she can sense the danger that this girl is in, against her instincts, she takes her in.    

Slowly the girl's (whose name is Zara) past begins to unfold, and at the same time, so does Aliide's, for both are harbouring deep and terrible secrets. In Aliide's case the secrets are half a decade old, but she is connected to Zara in ways that she does not realise, for unbeknown to her, Zara is the daughter of her neice, whose mother, Aliide's sister was sent to Siberia as a traitor during the Communist years, by Aliide's own husband. 

As the two stories unfold, we begin to understand more about the history of Estonia and the choices and consequences of those choices, that her citizens had to make in order to survive. The two women on the surface at least are very different, and yet they are the same, victims of circumstance, of perhaps having made the wrong choices, choices that nevertheless they felt they had to make and choices that once made, could not be unmade.

This would for those of a more sensitive disposition be a somewhat disturbing book, exploring as it does prostitution, trafficking, and betrayal in no short amount, but there are two sides to each story, and this is also a book about survival and redemption and of what the human spirit can endure when pushed almost to the very edge. For me it is a must read.

Saturday, 31 March 2012

Out of Shadows: Jason Wallace (Zimbabwe)

‘If I stood you in front of a man, pressed a gun into your palm and told you to squeeze the trigger, would you do it?’‘No, sir, no way!’‘What if I then told you we’d gone back in time and his name was Adolf Hitler? Would you do it then?’

Zimbabwe, 1980s. The war is over, independence has been won and Robert Mugabe has come to power offering hope, land and freedom to black Africans. It is the end of the Old Way and the start of a promising new era. For Robert Jacklin, it’s all new: new continent, new country, new school. And very quickly he learns that for some of his classmates, the sound of guns is still loud, and their battles rage on . . . white boys who want their old country back, not this new black African government. Boys like Ivan. Clever, cunning Ivan. For him, there is still one last battle to fight, and he’s taking it right to the very top.

This is a compelling and very well written novel by a highly acclaimed author, which I read in two days flat, a much unusual feat for me.

The preface to this remarkable book consists of the quote listed above, which the young Robert, a pupil at a boys boarding school in the newly independent Zimbabwe is asked shortly after his family's emigration to that land. It is not until the closing chapters of the book that we truly learn the significance of this quote and indeed the question that it poses.

Robert Jacklin, an impressionable thirteen year old, is the lead character in this extraordinary tale that addresses racism cleverly from both angles, black versus white, and the other way around. Robert is the son of idealystic yet highly dysfunctional parents, who have begun a new life in independent Zimbawbwe shortly after the war. Young and naive, and oblivious to the simmering tensions within the country, the young Jacklin initially befriends one of the few black pupils in the school, but desperate to fit in and feel part of the crowd, he soon ditches his black friend in favour of three particularly nasty and racist white boys in order to fit in and protect himself from their jibes.

The worst of these is the highly manipulative Ivan. It is easy to see elements of the Afrikaaner mentality in this character, and to some extent their American equivilant, the KKK. Unlike the KKK, Ivan makes no attempt to hide his contempt for the black pupils, and black Africans in general, in particular the new President, Robert Mugabe, openly using racist jibes and abusing both staff and pupils under the watchful eye of the history teacher, who shares his views.

Jacklin, despite his discomfort with many of the acts of violence and bullying that his three friends carry out, and that he feels obliged to join in with, allows himself to become part of this gang, all the while struggling with his conscience. As his friends become more and more sadistic, Jacklin becomes more and more uncomfortable. He feels powerless to extricate himself from the metaphorical grave that gets deeper each day. One has to feel sorry for Jacklin, feeling isolated and trapped, in a country where he does not belong, with friends that he begins to realise are not friends at all, but violent bullies trapped in a cycle of hatred.   

As Jacklin begins to mature, helped by his fathers remarriage to his former black maid,  he slowly comes to his senses, and starts to step back from the group. It is very much a case however of three steps forward, as he has witnessed the level of violence that these boys are capable of, and is fearful of what they may do to him. When he realises the full extent to which they have gone, killing and maiming innocent black children, and he uncovers a plot to assissinate the President himself, the country's great hope for peace, he realises that he must act.
The closing chapters reach a thrilling cresendo which is thought provoking indeed. The book finishes as it began with that same question - If I stood you in front of a man, pressed a gun into your palm and told you to squeeze the trigger, would you do it?’‘No, sir, no way!’‘What if I then told you we’d gone back in time and his name was Adolf Hitler? Would you do it then?’

If you changed the name Hitler to Mugabe and looked 20 years into the future from the time that this book was set, I wonder if the answer would be the same, and what the outcome may have been. Would history have been any different, or would another dictator have taken his place? Did the sins of the white settlers fathers find them out, and is this a case of what goes around comes around? If so, where if anywhere do you draw the line? The books willingness to explore these issues in a way that is designed to appeal to young adults is what makes this so good a read, and why it deserves all the awards that it got.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

What the Day Owes the Night: Yasmina Khadra (Algeria)

'Darling, this is Younes. Yesterday he was my nephew, today he is our son'

Younes' life is changed forever when his poverty-stricken parents surrender him to the care of his more affluent uncle. Renamed Jonas, he grows up in a colourful colonial Algerian town, and forges a unique friendship with a group of boys, an enduring bond that nothing - not even the Algerian Revolt - will shake. He meets Emilie - a beautiful, beguiling girl who captures the hearts of all who see her - and an epic love story is set in motion.

Time and again Jonas is forced to to choose between two worlds: Algerian or European; past or present; love or loyalty, and finally decide if he will surrender to fate or take control of his own destiny at last.

This is a beauthifully written, highly descriptive book by an exceptionally talented author. Reading this book was like listening to a beautiful song, as the way in which the author writes is almost poetic, with a lyrical quality to the words, and the way that the story unfolds.

Yasmina Khadra is the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul, an officer in the Algerian Army. He adopted a female pseuodnym to avoid military censorship and despite the publication of at least four successful novels (to my extreme annoyance this being the only one to be converted to Kindle), only revealed his true identity a little over a decade ago. 

In an interview with the German radio station SWR1 in 2006, Khadra said “The West interprets the world as it likes. It develops certain theories that fit into its world outlook, but do not always represent the reality." He holds no bars in this book, telling the story of young Jonas and the birth of the nation of Algeria during its struggle for independence exactly no doubt as it was, at least for him.

It was for me, the human interest element that shone through, partcularly Jonas' romance with Emilie and the tragedy that follows. When we first meet Jonas, or Younes as he is then, he is a young Muslim boy, the son of a farmer, but he is forced to leave everything he knows behind when the harvest burns down and follow his family (parents and deaf, mute sister) to the city of Oran, where they end up living in little more than a shack. Life is hard and many tragedies ensue, his father works day and night to make a better life for his family so that they can move out of the shack, but his life savings are stolen by his would be business partner.

It is at this point that his father reluctantly agrees to allow him to live with his Uncle, a successful Pharmacist, and his French Christian wife, and that is when the real tragedy begins, for unable to deal with his grief, the father slips into alcoholism and eventually disappears, a loss that Jonas and his mother, whom he occasionally visits, never quite comes to terms with. Initially bullied at school, as an outsider, he eventaully forms a lasting friendship with three French boys who become his constant companions.

Jonas comes across in some ways as a bit of a vain character, filled with his own self pity as to what has happened to him, it is almost as if he is a bystander, allowing things to happen rather than fully participating in his own fate. There are of course reasons for this, for he is thrown into a difficult situation - torn between two words and constantly forced to choose, Algerian or European, past or present, love or loyalty. By the time he does choose it is almost too late.

His failure to choose leads to the loss of his first love, the beautiful and enigmatic Emilie, daughter of a wealthy French landowner. As a young man, Jonas has an ill advised encounter with Emilie's mother, his first sexual experience. It her intervention when she realises that Jonas has feelings for her daughter that leads him to crush the fledgling romance. By that time Emilie is involved with one of his three best friends, but it is obvious that the two have feelings for each other, which Jonas does his best to ignor. When the friend catches them talking in an intimate way, his relationship with his friend changes forever. Emilie eventually marries another of his three friends, begging Jonas to intervene on the eve of her wedding, as it he that she really loves, but he does not have the courage to do so, as he is torn by his duty towards her mother and the guilt that he feels.

All of this only serves to reinforce how difficult it must be for a Muslim or for that matter, any child of other faith, growing up in a world where the majority are a different faith, in this case, Christian. Coming to terms with the disparities between beliefs, loyaltties and prejudicies. A reccurent thread that runs throughout the book is the guilt that Jonas feels at his relatively comfortable upbringing while his fellow Muslims, including his own lost family, who by that point are fighting for independence, live in abject poverty, facing discrimination on a daily basis from the French occupiers. The treatment that one of his friends meets out to his Muslim servant is truly shocking, and Jonas never can quite bring himself to intervene, in the end though he does learn to help in his own way, when the servant enrolls in the resistance, and Jonas who has by now taken over his Uncle's business, keeps them in medical supplies.

Jonas' friends all of whom are French, and Emilie, her husband having been killed during an arson attack by the resistance, are forced to flee the country during the uprisings, and Jonas becomes almost a recluse, immersing himself in his work.

Despite his weaknesses, I found myself warming to the character of Jonas, for there is much of him that I can recognise in my own youth, where I too allowed life to pass me by, afraid of making choices, or perhaps more accurately the wrong choice. It was this fear that prevented me, and no doubt Jonas too, from making any choice at all.

Despite the sorrow within these pages, the book ends on a high note, with Jonas an old man, having visited his childhood friends in France, and made his peace with not only them, but his long lost love, and also himself. There is much that we can learn from this character and this book, and I shall be badgering both Amazon and his publisher to convert more of this wonderful authors books to the Kindle format, so that I can read them. I would definately give this book five stars.   

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea (Saudi Arabia)

Gamrah’s faith in her new husband is not exactly returned …

Sadeem is a little too willing to please her fiancé …

Michelle is half-American and the wrong class for her boyfriend’s family …

While Lamees works hard with little time for love.

The girls of Riyadh are young, attractive and living by Saudi Arabia’s strict cultural traditions. Well, not quite. In-between sneaking out behind their parents’ backs, dating, shopping, watching American TV and having fun, they’re still trying to be good little Muslim girls. That is, pleasing their families and their men.

But can you be a twenty-first century girl and a Saudi girl?

I first heard about this book during one of many trips to Lundy, a small island in the Bristol Channel, when I read an interview with the author in the Daily Mail. The book sounded fascinating, but this was in the days before Kindles when everything (for me at least) was still bought in shops, so the book was filed in my brain under those that I would like to read, until some vague recollection triggered its memory and a copy was finally ordered several years later.

It was worth the wait, as I can honestly say that this was one of the most eye opening reads of last year (2011). It definately changed my perception of what goes on 'beneath the veil' in the world's only Islamic state, where there is no secular law, only religious.

Having worked for a company whose clients were all Saudi banks back in the early 90's, I had many conversations with our salesman, a regular visitor to Riyadh where the book is set, on the apparent contradictions and blatant hypocrisy in Saudi society, especially when it comes to women, which this book exposes in stark detail. I remember a conversation I had via email with the Indian employee of one of our clients, to the effect that I should not go to Saudi, for women there were like "birds in gilded cages". Having read this book, I have no doubt that he was right. The cage of which he speaks is very much a men's world, where the every single action that a woman takes, even in private, is largely controlled by the attitudes and beliefs of men.       

The book follows the lives of 4 Saudi women, all of whom are very different, but as it turns out, want the same thing (goodness knows why, for if I were a Saudi woman I would remain resolutely single, not that I would probably have a choice) to marry the man of their dreams. How though do you do this, in a society where dating as we would know it is forbidden, and where most marriages are arranged, or at the very least, have to be 'vetted' by the grooms family?

The girls go about their quest in different ways and experience many trials and tribulations along the way. As with all good stories, all bar one end up happy and settled in the end, the rest I will leave you to find out for yourselves ...

Friday, 16 March 2012

Island of Wings: Karin Altenberg (Scotland)

On the ten-hour sailing west from the Hebrides to the islands of St Kilda, everything lies ahead for Lizzie and Neil MacKenzie. Neil is to become the minister to the small community of islanders and Lizzie, his new wife, is pregnant with their first child. Neil's journey is evangelical: a testing and strengthening of his own faith against the old pagan ways of the St Kildans, but it is also a passage to atonement. For Lizzie - bright, beautiful and devoted - this is an adventure, a voyage into the unknown. She is sure only of her loyalty and love for her husband, but everything that happens from now on will challenge all her certainties. As the two adjust to life on an exposed archipelago on the edge of civilization, where the natives live in squalor and subsist on a diet of seabirds, and babies perish mysteriously in their first week, their marriage - and their sanity - is threatened. Is Lizzie a willful temptress drawing him away from his faith? Is Neil's zealous Christianity unhinging into madness? And who, or what, is haunting the moors and cliff-tops? Exquisitely written and profoundly moving, Island of Wings is more than just an account of a marriage in peril - it is also a richly imagined novel about two people struggling to keep their love, and their family, alive in a place of terrible hardship and tumultuous beauty.

I have a long standing fascination with the St Kilda group of islands, having first heard of them during a visit to Shetland in 1988, and having also read Tom Steel's seminal work The Life and Death of St Kilda several times, so when I saw the paperback edition of this book on sale in Waterstones in late 2011, had to buy a copy.

I was not disappointed, as the story fascinated right from the first page. Both Lizzie and Neil are based on real people who actually did exist, and although much has been written about the historial Neil, little is known of his wife. This book aims to redress that imbalance, and like other books that I read that year (2011), is written much more from the female perspective.

I suppose this is what I liked about the story - the idea of this strong woman who supports her man by sailing almost to the other side of the world to live among illiterate farmers whose language she cannot even understand. During her time on the island Lizzie loses several children, and as her husband becomes more and more fervent in his faith, she feels herself gradually losing him too.

This book, although hypothetical and based only loosely on fact is still very well researched. The descriptions of the St Kildan landscape and way of life really bring the story to life, adding much more depth to what could otherwise have been a much less ordinary tale.   

Ancestor Stones: Aminata Forna (Sierra Leone)

Abie follows the arc of a letter from London back to Africa to a coffee plantation that now could be hers if she wants it. Standing among the ruined groves she strains to hear the sound of the past, but the layers of years are too many. Thus begins the gathering of her family's history through the tales of her aunts - four women born to four different wives of a wealthy plantation owner, her grandfather. Asana, Mariama, Hawa and Serah: theirs is the story of a nation, a family and four women's attempts to alter the course of her own destiny.

Having searched for books by authors from this part of Africa, it was inevitable that I would come across this authors work towards the end of 2011, when I tentatively began this challenge. The book was duly added ot my wish list until I noticed that it was the Kindle Daily Deal, which was almost too good to be true, and so I began to read.

This really is a very well written book, full of insights into the lives and experiences of four African women, all related by marriage. The four women are Aunts in the Kholifa family whose wealthy patriarch has no less than eleven wives. Although the country in which the story is set is not explicitly stated, I tended to assume that it was the authors homeland of Sierra Leone, for the descriptions of war that follow seem to follow the same pattern of my own admittedly limited knowledge of this land.

The book starts when the lead character Abie receives a letter from her cousin Alpha requesting that she return to take over the family's coffee plantation. She had left her homeland as a teenager and is now happily living in London, with her husband and children. What follows is a pilgrimage into her own past.

The story focusses on the stories of her four aunts, covering an extended period of time from the late 1920's through to the millennium. The various stories touch on village life, customs and traditions written very much from the female perspective, as seems to be the case with the majority of African books that I have read. As the book was read some months before I wrote this review, it is difficult to remember exact facts or details, except to say that although the book was rather slow to begin with, as the story began to unfold I found myself gently drawn in. Although some of the stories were harrowing, especially the treatment of the younger wives, I was and am no stranger to this type of book, so it did not unduly shock compared to books set in other African, or indeed, Southeast Asian countries. Nevertheless it is clear that Sierra Leone has a chequered history.

It was refreshing indeed to read a book that was so free of pretensions and I will definately try and read more of this authors work.

My Autobiography: Charles Chaplin (England)

Born into a theatrical family, Chaplin's father died of drink while his mother, unable to bear the poverty, suffered from bouts of insanity, Chaplin embarked on a film-making career which won him immeasurable success, as well as intense controversy. His extraordinary autobiography was first published in 1964 and was written almost entirely without reference to documentation - simply as an astonishing feat of memory by a 75 year old man. It is an incomparably vivid reconstruction of a poor London childhood, the music hall and then his prodigious life in the movies.

This was the second time that I have read this book. Being brought up by parents who were a generation older than the norm, I was brought up watching Chaplin movies and so am a huge fan of his work. I bought my mother a copy of the paperback edition of this book as a birthday gift a few years before she died, and found it while clearing out her house, which is when I read it for the first time. I am not sure what happened to that original, but was inspired to download and read it for the second time following a visit to see The Artist.

Considering that this book was written when Chaplin was in his mid 70's (and unlike modern celebrity memoirs, he did indeed write this all himself) it is an astonishing feat of memory. As such it covers the period from his birth to the mid 1950's around the era of Limelight and Monsieur Verdoux, two of his most successful films, and his fall from grace in the United States, where he was accused of being a Communist sympathiser.

It is all in here, from his humble beginnings in Lambeth and Kennington and the grinding poverty that led his mother to repeated bouts of insanity, and his meteoric rise to fame. Despite his reputation as a womaniser, Chaplin is relatively coy about his love life, with little information on his four marriages - mostly it has to be said, to protect the elder of his many children.

Despite his rise to fame and incredible wealth, Chaplin never forgot his beginnings, and the things that matter. The book reveals an astute mind and understanding of what I would term humanist principles.

It is true what they say that films are not made the way they used to be, and I for one would welcome a revival of silent movies and this expressive form of acting and entertaining, where action reigns supreme and the true meaning is lost in words that act as mere symbols for what we feel.

To write a comprehensive review of this book would be a tome in itself, but suffice to say that this is a well written and exceedingly readable book, which makes a refreshing change from the egocentric modern celebrity tell-all memoirs. These so-called celebrities and indeed actors, could learn a lot from this man were he still alive.

The Book of Lies: Mary Horlock (Guernsey)

On this island your friends and your enemies quickly end up the same . . .-1985-When fifteen-year-old Catherine sees her best friend slip from a wild cliff path she vows never to say a word. But Catherine was the last person to see her alive.-1940-Charlie is also holding back a secret from the adults on the island. As German soldiers arrive on Guernsey, he carries out an act of rebellion with consequences that will reach far into the future - and into Catherine's own life.The Book of Lies is a powerful novel about friendship, love and betrayal. Weaving together two lives across the decades, it proves that no truth is as simple as it seems.

This was an excellent book, a first in two ways - my first Kindle read and a first novel for the author Mary Horlock, who was born in Guernsey and moved to the mainland at the age of 18.

The Book of Lies is really two books in one, for it skillfully interweaves the story of teenager Catherine or Cat, and her Uncle, local historian Charles. The book as far as Cat is concerned in set in the mid 1980's, whereas Charles the Uncle tells his story from the mid 60's, looking back to the German occupation of the island, a period of Guernsey history about which few books exist. As both stories unfold, we find snippets of information that link the two tales together, like the fact that Cat's tormentor, her so-called friend Nicolette, lives in the same house where her Uncle Charles was tortured by the German occupiers.

There are other similaries between the two characters, for both Cat and Charles have lost their fathers, and both have done terrible things without meaning to, having been caught up in a web of lies and miscommunication that ultimately costs lives. Like the blurb says, on an island this small your friends and your enemies quickly end up the same. Charles was betrayed by those that he thought were friends, in an effort to try and fit in, as was Cat, who is betrayed by her best friend, Nicolette, the coolest girl in the school.

The authors portrayal of the teenage Cat was for me particularly poignant, as I too was bullied by those that I tried to befriend, like Cat for trying too hard to fit in. Cat's disgust at her friend's clique and the way that she so rapidly lets their friendship go and moves on to the next thing is palpable and so very true to life, as this is the reality for so many teens.

This is one of those books that contains many different layers, and I suppose it is that that makes it so refreshing and so readable. It is a book of history, of dark comedy and the deepest secrets of the soul, it is also a book about truth and dare I say it, the law of cause and effect, for it shows that for every action there is indeed a reaction. Most of all it is as the title says, a book about lies and about how they are always found out. It is however a book that I would wholeheartedly recommend.

The Checkout Girl: Tazeen Ahmad (England)

Tazeen Ahmad is an Indian born British Muslim working as a television reporter and broadcaster and in 2009 published her first book entitled The Checkout Girl. This is an undercover expose of her time spent working on a frontline as a checkout girl (otherwise known as COG - a most fitting term, since these underpaid employees are indeed the COG's that keep everything, and not just the conveyer belt moving) in Sainsbury's. I too worked for Sainsbury's for 2 years between 2003 and 2005, at one of their larger branches in the southeast. Ahmad does not state which branch she worked in, and this does not matter, for the book is really about the people with whom she worked - this is their story, and as the book says, by the time who you have finished reading it, I can guarantee that you won't ever shop in the same way again. I certainly changed my own habits after I started working there, and like Ahmad, am thoroughly glad that I left.

The relentless grind of this job is enough to drag anyone down - contrary to popular opinion it is a skilled job that not everyone can do. One has to perfect the art of doing about ten things at once (this is the main reason why I suspect the majority of COG’s are women, for men are by tradition useless at multi-tasking), all the while engaging with the customer in what Sainsbury's refer to as a 'meaningful manner.' While it is true that if you stay in this job for any length of time, relationships can develop with customers, the majority of this banter is take it from me, far from meaningful, but enough to put most ordinary people to sleep.

As COG's every move you make is monitored, with hidden cameras everywhere. Those at the top instantly know if a COG has short changed customers, accepted an out of date coupon, forgotten someone's cash back, or heaven forbid, spoken back to a rude and argumentative customer, of which there are many. Their rudeness and arrogance is sometimes breath taking, treating you as little more than paid robots, and robots who are not that well paid at that. This is mirrored by the behaviour of the checkout supervisors - like Ahmad I know all about lack of bag packers, wonky chairs, unanswered call bells, and late reliefs. This for me was the greatest bugbear of all - the fact that if you as a COG are even one minute late for your shift, they deduct 15 minutes from your wages, yet if you are late out, which you are almost every day, you are not paid. Sainsbury's (and no doubt other supermarkets too) must be getting hours of unpaid labour from their COG's held captive at their checkouts, every day. Other staff after all, can simply leave the shop floor and go home, but not COG's who are completely at the mercy of late reliefs, forgetful supervisors and customers with huge trolleys who are unable to comprehend that a closing sign means just that.

These things may sound trivial to some, but when they happen repeatedly every single day, they begin to get more than a little wearing. Ahmad worked just 2 days a week, so you can imagine what it was like for me, working full time.

In the end I went stir crazy - I looked around at some of my colleagues who had been there so long that they were afraid to leave, and knew that if I didn't do something to rectify my own situation, I would end up institutionalised just like them. The day I gave my notice was the day they left me sitting on that checkout for over an hour calling to say I needed the toilet - that gave a whole new meaning to the term pissed off I can tell you, and I haven't looked back.

A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. I still work in the service sector, but in a job that offers more meaning than sitting at a moving conveyer belt watching food whizz by could ever offer. Reading this book has though made me think back to those days and remember all the reasons why I had to leave, and also I suppose evaluate how far I have come. When I worked at Sainsbury's all those years ago, I would not have dared stand up to the supervisors or the customers in the way that I should have, keeping stum until the anger and frustration boiled over. Not so now. I have learned to communicate properly and with confidence so that these little things do not become larger issues. I am glad that I have changed, and I thank Sainsbury's for the time I spent working there, but I am still glad that I escaped, as most of their customers are too by the time they have finished their shop. It may be stressful for them, but they are the lucky ones for they can take their custom elsewhere, for the COG’s it is not so easy during a recession, when jobs are scarce. Next time you go shopping then, spare a thought for the beleaguered cashier, remember that a few niceties go a long way, and there is no need to be rude, they are after all just like you, only human, and trying to do the best that they can in difficult and very trying circumstances.

The Storm Before the Calm: Neale Donald Walsh (United States)

In October last year (2011), I read a somewhat different book for me entitled The Storm Before the Calm by Neale Donald Walsh. Neale is of course the author of the Conversations with God series of books. I have read most if not all of his works, and met him in person during one of his visits to London several years ago. It has though been a while since I picked up a book of this genre, mostly because so few of them seem to resonate with the way in which I have evolved. This one though is different, as it speaks directly to my soul about so many of the things that I have felt instinctively for so long, but have until now been unable to put into words.

I found the book purely by accident, as one does, browsing online for information about the Occupy movement. Boris Johnson, the Lord Mayor of London. said around the time that I found this book, that it was time for the London protestors to reliniquish their base near St Paul's Cathedral, as they had "made their point". To my mind, the fact that he even said this was proof that he had not begun to understand the point that they were trying to make. That was and is that the world as we know it, or more specifically, our beliefs about the world, are fundamentally flawed and are no longer (if they ever did) serving humanity's best interests. This too is the basic tenet of The Storm Before the Calm.

It is no secret that within the United States (and for that matter the rest of the world at large), 99 percent of the wealth is controlled by 1 percent of the population. Like Neale, I have nothing against the rich (he is after all one of them). I have tasted myself what it felt like, after my mother died and left me a six figure sum (most of it has since been invested and/or spent). No, it is the systems that they represent, which are designed to oppress the masses and keep them in their place, so that the rich can maintain theirs that is the problem. This is not necessarily the fault of the rich, but they nevertheless help to maintain this system and this way of thinking by their inertia and their failure to change.

What is needed, says Neale, is a change from our current way of thinking, from a dyad (two centred approach where politics and economics rule) to a triad where culture, that is to say everything that is not politics or economics, takes centre stage. At the moment we live in a society where economics are King, where the first consideration is always the cost. The first consideration should however be whatever is in the best interests of the population, the majority of whom are ordinary working class citizens. It is then not a a question of redistribution of wealth, but more a question of a change of beliefs, for it is our beliefs about life, and more specifically about God (the terms life and God are in fact interchangeable, as God is life manifesting itself through us) that create our thoughts, and those thoughts that give rise to action.

The way to create this change says Neale, and I am inclined to agree, is to start a global conversation based around seven core questions - the most fundamental of which are 1) Who am I, 2) Where am I, 3) What do I intend to do about that. The answers will be personal to each and every one of us, and we have to find out for ourselves what they are to us, by putting the mind to one side, and seeing what lies in the silence that lies beyond. This takes practise and patience, but the rewards are more than worth it, but once we are able to achieve this and put this into practise, a global shift will occur, the like of which we have never seen before. All it takes for us to achieve this is to converse with others on the matters mentioned in this most remarkable book. This can be done in any way and in any form that you choose with anyone that you choose, whether in person or on the Internet. I would encourage everyone to try. It is easier than you might think, and what have you got to lose? You may be surprised to find that others have been thinking and feeling the exact same as you, without you even being aware, for that is usually what happens. Someone has to start somewhere, so it might as well be you.

For more information, and to join the discussions go to

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Between Shades of Grey: Ruta Sepetys (Lithuania)

One night fifteen-year-old Lina, her mother and young brother are hauled from their home by Soviet guards, thrown into cattle cars and sent away. They are being deported to Siberia.

An unimaginable and harrowing journey has begun. Lina doesn't know if she'll ever see her father or her friends again. But she refuses to give up hope. Lina hopes for her family. For her country.
For her future. For love - first love, with the boy she barely knows but knows she does not want to lose . . . Will hope keep Lina alive?

Set in 1941, Between Shades of Gray is an extraordinary and haunting story based on first-hand family accounts and memories from survivors.

There are many books that detail the horror of what happened in WW2, but very few about the effect that the formation of the Soviet Union had on the inhabitants of the former (now independent again) Baltic states. This is one of those books that tells the story of what happened to the inhabitants of Lithuania.

It details the story of a 15 year old Lithuanian girl, Lina, and her family, whose ordinary life is shattered the day that she is dragged, together with her family from her home by the Soviet Secret Police, and transported hundreds of miles by train, to the icy wastes of Siberia to live and work in a Soviet labour camp. As with the Jewish concentration camps, these ordinary people, thrown together by fate, form strong friendships and bonds that help them to survive against incredible odds. Throughout her ordeal, Lina, who is an artist, finds the opportunity to draw whenever she can, using whatever materials she can find, in order to record the people and the places that she encounters. This is no doubt one of the things that helps her to keep her sanity and survive.    

This is a tale of hardship and deprivation, of  sadness and of man's hostily towards his fellow man (and of course woman), but most of all it is a book about survival and a book about friendship and resilence and of how the human spirit ultimately always wins through.

The author is the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee who lives in the US. She wanted to tell this story, the story of her ancestors, for some of it is based on the first hand accounts of survivors, so that more would be aware of the history of these Baltic states and what their people went through.

It would be misleading to say that this was a book that I enjoyed, for it is hard to enjoy tales of others suffering, but it is a book from which I learnt a lot, and is therefore a book that I would strongly recommend.

Strength in What Remains: Tracy Kidder (Burundi)

I read some interesting books during the latter part of last year (2011), from various countries in Africa and South-east Asia, but the one that stands out more than any other was set in the impoverished central African counnty of Burundi. The book, entitled Strength in What Remains is written by an American named Tracy Kidder, and tells the true story of a survivor of the genocide that took place in that small African country in 1993. It really made me think and question many of the things that we take for granted and which are in the scheme of life, frivulous and really quite insignificant.

As an example, at the beginning of December, around the time that I read this book, I attended my work Christmas party. It was a lavish do with disco and three course meal at nearby Epsom Racecourse, in which all the staff dressed up. I was fretting over what to wear, so that I did not look frumpy, and also moaned about the standard of the vegetarian food that I was served, which when compared to the carnivorous option, was far less substantial. Yet Burindians, and for that matter, those in many other countries, cannot afford even basic clothes and have no idea as to where their next meal is coming from. The amount of money that was spent that night by some people was akin to more than most Burundians make in a whole year.

The book quotes some frightening statistics - Burundi has the lowest GDP per head of population than any other country on earth with one of the lowest literacy rates and life expectancy, particularly for women, who due to the high infant mortality rate go through pregnancy after pregnancy getting old and worn out way before their time.

The things that the main character in this book saw and experienced cannot begin to be imagined - the book describes a scene where he was fleeing from his own country into neighbouring Rwanda.  He was sheltering in a banana grove surrounded by dead bodies. It was there that he noticed a live baby trying to suckle it's dead mothers breast. He knew that there was nothing whatsoever that he could for this child and it too would die, a victim of those intent on killing those that they felt were different to them.

The whole experience of that Christmas party, dressing up to try and impress, making polite conversation with the boss and keeping up a pretence that I was enjoying myself left me wondering why we do it - why do we do things that we know make us uncomfortable in an effort to try and fit in? I prefer a quieter, calmer environment, where I can hear the conversation without having to strain, not glamour, flashing lights and falsehood. Real strength, like the character in this book, comes from being willing to face your demons and work with them, not by blotting them out with distractions, which for me at least, is what events like this are all about.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Drums on the Night Air: Veronica Cecil (Congo)

Veronica Cecil was twenty-five years old when her husband was offered a job at a large multi-national company in the Congo. Filled with enthusiasm for their new life, the couple and their eleven-month-old son set off for an African adventure. Very soon, however, Veronica began to realise that life in the Congo was not what she had imagined. Food shortages were an everyday occurrence; she felt like an outsider at the club in Léopoldville, which only the Belgians and other expats frequented; and flickers of violence were starting to erupt everywhere. Six months later Veronica and her family were sent to Elizabetha, a remote palm oil plantation on the banks of the Congo River. But even here paradise didn't last. Civil war broke out, and the rebels captured the neighbouring town of Stanleyville and took all the whites hostage. Despite the fact that Veronica was on the verge of giving birth, the situation was so dangerous that she and her toddler had to be evacuated. Leaving her husband and all their possessions behind, she and her son began on a two-day journey through the jungle. But on the plane back to Leopoldville, the first labour pains began...

I bought this book at the beginning of the year, as part of the 12 Days of Kindle campaign, but for some reason, put off reading until now. I am not sure why that was; maybe it because so many other different books vied for my attention that seemed more interesting, but whatever the reason, I found that I was pleasantly surprised when I did begin to read.

I had been expecting a somewhat lame tale about expats living in Africa and the difficulties of having to face all that poverty, but in fact I found the opposite. The author who was born in British India, and lived in both South Africa and what was then Rhodesia, was no stranger to Africa or its problems, but was in fact for her day somewhat of a revolutionary and champion of civil rights. Everything of course changed with motherhood, and this revolutionary young woman was transformed into loyal wife and mother whose role was to support her husband and keep home. This is not to say that she did not have a mind of her own, but back then, in the early 1960's things were different and women's roles were also different. For those who did not live through, or like me, were not born into that era, it would be difficult to understand.

She found the life of a expatriate wife in the capital Leopoldville dull and frustratingly cliquey, and longed to see the real Congo, but when her chance finally came, it was short lived, for within five short months everything changed, and both she and her family were forced to flee back to the safety of Leopoldville and ultimately home. The trouble was that at the time, the author was not just heavily pregnant, but about to drop. The pains started on the way back to Leopoldville, and after several false starts, her daughter was finally born.

Being written, as it is from the woman's point of view, this book is more likely to appeal to women, I hate to say it, of a certain age, who were either born into or part of the era of which she speaks. Mrs Cecil was obviously a strong and a courageous woman, that much is clear, for not many would have had the guts to endure what she did, but then again, when your children's lives are at risk, you will go to extraordinary lengths.

Overall this was a enjoyable short read, to which I would probably give an average rating.